Dear David Maclean: A moral philosopher seeks ministerial guidance on the difference between right and wrong

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I was intrigued by your recent statement that 'while the Church spends its time discussing social issues such as housing, politicians are left to talk about the difference between right and wrong'.

As a responsible minister and a Presbyterian, you would surely not want the rift between your government and the Church to widen. Therefore, I seek your guidance on some matters of interpretation of the Ten Commandments (Exodus XX, 3-17).

'Thou shalt have no other gods before me' would seem to be the most serious stipulation. Are we then to overlook the worship of The Market and the ritual dancing around the golden calf? Is there not a connection between declining parental care and acquisitiveness?

'Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.' What, then, are we to make of a Sunday Trading Bill?

'Honour thy father and thy mother' would seem to be one of your winners, but how are children expected to honour their hard-working, lonely mothers when the Government is continually slagging them off, just because their fathers have walked away? And should those absent fathers be honoured or not?

'Thou shalt not kill' also looks simple, but a word on when it is and is not legitimate to kill for reasons of state would be helpful.

'Thou shalt not commit adultery' might be best left to your colleague Steven Norris at the Ministry of Transport, but he is only the latest of a long line.

'Thou shalt not steal' rather depends on who you are, does it not? Your government can steal more or less what it likes by passing an Act of Parliament. Changing rules on National Insurance, privatising water, refusing proper compensation until you have been dragged through the courts, are all forms of theft.

It would also be helpful to know why punishments for theft are in inverse proportion to their size, so that shoplifting leads to imprisonment whereas large-scale fraud frequently does not.

'Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour' raises many points. I leave aside systematic lying by ministers to the House of Commons; I even leave aside the murky matters of the Scott inquiry, yet I must still ask about Sir Robert Armstrong's economies with the truth in the Spycatcher

affair.

'Thou shalt not covet' sounds old-fashioned in a society where covetousness is part of our commercial fabric. I think you refer to them as 'takeovers by predators'.

This leaves taking the name of the Lord in vain; but as ministers only do so in private, I daresay they can be excused.

Of course, you might argue that these commandments are old-fashioned. You might prefer the New Testament's Two Commandments of loving God and thy neighbour as thyself, but this assumption is undermined by your disparaging remark about the Church concerning itself with housing and social issues.

Perhaps you would clarify the Government's position, for those of us anxious to discuss the difference between right and wrong.

(Photograph omitted)

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